Archive: Aug 2013

kijeomaThis guest post is brought to you by Kendra Ijeoma, Engagement Coordinator at Women Employed in Chicago, Illinois. A feminist, social media junkie and aspiring social entrepreneur, Kendra mobilizes supporters online and in-person to become activists for women’s economic security, workforce development and access to education. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Seattle University with a focus in Women’s Studies.

In a political climate that is so unfavorable for women, our rights eroded and our needs marginalized at seemingly every turn.

On August 5th, three powerhouse Chicago women participated in a roundtable discussion in honor of Women Employed’s 40th anniversary about how women can build power and exert influence in civic, professional, and political life. U.S. Representative Robin Kelly, author Rebecca Sive, whose new book, Every Day is Election Day, was recently released, and former Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama Susan Sher offered salient advice to women, as well as important stories about how they have achieved success and attained positions of power both in Chicago and nationally.Panelists with Board Chair Lisa Pattis

The conversation could not have come at a better time.

The takeaway? Women can and do have power and influence, but asserting that power can be tricky. For women, the route to success and to making your voice heard means walking a tightrope of proclaiming your individual qualifications and accomplishments, while also working successfully in collaboration with other women.

Susan Sher, now Executive Vice President for Corporate Strategy and Public Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Senior Advisor to the University President, advised women not to be afraid of, “shameless self-promotion. When you do a great job and you think you’ll be recognized, it just isn’t true. It’s important to take credit for what you do.”  This was a theme echoed by each of the women on the panel.

However, Sher, Kelly, and Sive also emphasized that many women are naturally self-effacing, which can undermine our interests. For that reason, banding together with other women can be powerful, and is a vital strategy to make people stand up and pay attention to women’s needs. Sive emphasized that for women, “The route to power and influence is not a route you take alone. There is strength in numbers. You can win with women and for women.” Rep. Kelly echoed that sentiment, adding that, “there’s something special about what women can do together.”

AudienceSo as a regular woman leading a regular life, where do you start? All of the panelists, as well as Women Employed Executive Director Anne Ladky, who moderated the event, stressed that while it’s important to have women in government and in the board room, the most vital agent of change will be everyday women like you and me standing up and exerting their own power. Every woman can have influence over her life and her circumstances. But we must be vocal in our churches, our neighborhoods, our book clubs, our school boards, and our offices.

As women, we need to speak up about issues like paid sick days, family-supporting wages, flexible schedules, access to affordable childcare, healthcare, and education, and countless other issues that impact us – as well as our partners and families. If we don’t take that step, things will never change.

So get out there. Make your voice heard. Shout your accomplishments out loud. Register to vote and go to the polls. Stand up for the issues you care about. Proclaim your message on social media. If you don’t, nobody will. And if you’re in Chicago, get connected with Women Employed, who has been fighting for economic opportunity for women for 40 years. We make it easy for you to make a difference. Visit to find out how.

For the past few years I’ve been tracking organizations that genuinely support girls — as opposed to those who purport to support girls — while actually leveraging cultural concern about girlhood to advance other values.  Only recently I learned the term “astroturfing” to describe a faux grassroots organization that covers its tracks, and I can see, often enough, where it applies.  So nothing could have thrilled me more than learning about the newly formed alliance Brave Girls Want, which harnesses the energy of multiple organizations and individuals all working to change the expectations girls are both subject to and sold on material and deeper levels.

Brave Girls Want came together quickly as Executive Directors Melissa Wardy and Ines Almeida rounded up a coalition of allies (including our own Deborah Siegel) who are all passionate about refusing gender stereotypes and reframing childhood.  Recent triumphs include tapping into consumer outrage over a t-shirt marketed to girls and sold at The Children’s Place which left “math” unchecked among a list of “My Best Subjects” (with “shopping,” somehow, part of the intended curriculum).  Through the power of their numbers, the campaign went viral and the shirt was pulled from back-to-school shelves.  Many of the members included were active in the pushback against LEGO’s Friends line, released to “appeal to girls” but in ways that were shockingly unprogressive.  Through the power of petition, (over 60,000 signatures), social media, and persistence, a team of SPARK girls and their allies met with LEGO representatives and they have closely been tracking their progress ever since.

United, the power behind the Brave Girls Want alliance feels electric, fueled by collective passion and commitment.  Their current undertaking is to go straight into the media heartland and rent a billboard in New York City’s Times Square which will flash messages counter to the current gender expectations now set, and advance ideas that impel real progress. Importantly, girls will be actively involved in the campaign. Their goal is to raise $25,000 in time to have the billboard light up on October 11th, the second International Day of The Girl.

There is so much work still ahead to advocate for gender equity and steer change from deeply embedded stereotypes, but I’m excited to share their passion and hope for what yet can be.  “The hashtag that makes your heart smile” is part of their slogan; advocating for real revolution within media feels to me more like a full-body jolt that hopefully will wake up the world.

Two critical pieces of U.S. voting rights legislation mark anniversaries this August: the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920 guaranteeing women the vote and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ensuring every citizen regardless of race or language equal access to the voting booth. Unfortunately, there is little time to celebrate past victories. Critical new battles are underway in the struggle for equal voting rights.

This past June the Supreme Court dismantled Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 required states with a history of racial discrimination to receive prior federal approval before making changes in voting regulations. Immediately some states moved to implement laws previously blocked by Section 4. Others proposed radical new legislation restricting access to voting.

Many Americans seem to forget how hard fought the battles for voting rights have been, how many suffered and died.  Maybe they don’t read their history books; maybe they don’t  pay attention to what’s happening around them. Others simply don’t care. They apparently believe in full democracy only when it suits their own purposes.

The history of the 19th amendment and the decades of effort before its final ratification were not included in my schoolbooks. I learned these lessons from my childhood friend, Miss Georgiana Fulton. She told of the suffragists who picketed President Wilson at the White House in 1917. She urged me to read about the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, and how abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s eloquent speech helped convince delegates to include Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s controversial demand for women’s suffrage.

I met Miss Fulton the spring I was eight.  She was in her seventies and lived alone in a ram-shackled cottage without indoor plumbing. Most of the other kids thought she was crazy. But I loved the sweet smelling hyacinths in her overgrown garden and one day she invited me in.

Soon I was stopping every few days on my way home from school.   Miss Fulton told wonderful stories–of leaving Shreveport, LA on her own to study art in Paris in 1900, of the artists she knew in New York, and of places nearby where wild violets grew in abundance. She helped me with my schoolwork and often asked me interesting questions I couldn’t answer. Some of the questions were about issues we now refer to as civil rights.

Miss Fulton was fierce in her determination that I understand that women had fought for the right to vote. She once lectured me when I told her girls could be class president just like boys. Her words are still alive in my mind. “That’s fine, child, but mark my words, there’s no equality yet. And don’t you ever let them say, ‘women were given the right to vote’.  They say that now, I know they say it, but it’s not true, not true!”

I was in seventh grade when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v the Board of Education. Our teacher told us the decision was one of the most important in decades and that our lives would be better because of it.

Miss Fulton had a different reaction. “Child, listen to me. There will be trouble home in ‘Luziana; they won’t like this at all.”

I tried to argue with her. “It’s only fair, how can someone say people have to be separated because of the color of their skin? That’s not right!”

“Ah, child, you are not listening. You know nothing about this.” Miss Fulton’s voice was sharp, and her words stuck in my head, “I’m not saying the decision was wrong, I’m saying things can be right and still not succeed.”

“Change comes hard, child, very hard,” she continued, “You mark my words, girl, these things are much more complicated than you or your teacher know. You’ll learn.”

Miss Fulton was right; I had a lot to learn. And the foundation for much of my learning started with her stories.

We all have stories to tell when it comes to things we care about—our own, or those we’ve made our own because they’ve touched and impressed us. People need to hear these stories.  They convey more than information, they carry emotion, conviction and care.

Change does come hard, and people do fear it. Stories that lodge in the mind and linger in the heart can make a difference. Such stories inspire commitment and sustain perseverance. An abundance of both is required in the unfinished struggle for equal rights–in the voting booth and beyond.

51URURQbTeL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_There are many reasons to check out veteran journalist Alissa Quart’s new book, Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels. And not just because I love the graphic cover or because she is my good friend. Well, maybe those are reasons 2 and 3. But don’t take my word alone.

The book is generating some well-deserved buzz: Approval Matrix of New York Magazine, Flavorwire’s top books of August, excerpts in The Nation and O.

So what’s it about? Outsiders who seek to redefine a wide variety of fields, from film and mental health to diplomacy and music, from how we see gender to what we eat. Professional and amateur filmmakers crowd-sourcing their work, transgender and autistic activists, Occupy Wall Street’s “alternative bankers.”  These people create and package new identities. They are “identity innovators”, pushing the boundaries of who they can be and what they can do–and moving the mainstream as they go.

My favorite chapter, no surprise, is the one titled “Beyond Feminism.” Here, Quart profiles a number of transpeople and reflects on how the thinking about gender-as-spectrum is moving the dial:

They were innovating their own identities but also trying to alter feminism itself. Transcending and remixing sex stereotypes, they believed, was a necessary next stage for the development of both men and women. In order to obtain greater equality for all, they thought, we must look again at how gender biases and clichés limit all of us.

Deeply reported, the book at large explores how, as stated on Amazon, “without a middleman, freed of established media, and highly mobile, unusual ideas and cultures are able to spread more quickly and find audiences and allies.” It’s a close look at those for whom being rebellious, marginal, or amateur is a source of strength.

Writes Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, “Quart’s profiles are thoroughly researched and admirably evenhanded.” Says Booklist, “Lots of good food for thought and solid inspiration for those who feel stifled by traditional choices.”

Ever feel like an outsider? Ever hunger for a sharp cultural analysis of how the margins inform the center? Folks, this book is for you.

660b_banner-large-full-color-scribbleAs someone immersed in the process of writing a graphic memoir, and a serious newbie, imagine my delight when I came upon the Ladydrawers Comics Collective. Imagine my further delight when I learned that this collective is based in my new hometown, Chicago.  I waited all of three seconds before reaching out to learn more. The result is the interview below, with three of the collective’s members who were gracious enough to answer my (myriad) questions.

Anne Elizabeth Moore is a Fulbright scholar, a UN Press Fellow, the Truthout columnist behind Ladydrawers: Gender and Comics in the US, and the author of several award-winning books including Cambodian Grrrl (Cantankerous Titles 2011),  Unmarketable (The New Press 2007), and New Girl Law. Fran Syass is a filmmaker and artist from Chicago and recently graduated The School of the Art Institute. Lindsey Smith is an undergraduate student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a focus in Animation and Film.

Here, they talk to me about hybridity, intersectionality, love affairs with comics, gender and racial bias in the comic-book world, their new documentary film, breaking even, and what Jane Addams has to do with it all.

Enjoy! – Deborah

ladydrawers080111_2GWP: Anne, you founded the Ladydrawers Comics Collective after a decade in the comics industry and were recently called “one of the sharpest thinkers and cultural critics bouncing around the globe today” by Razorcake. I understand the collective began in 2010 as a class you taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with volunteers from outside of academia and professional cartoonists coming in to talk to the students. Three years later, what’s your vision for the collective now?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Well, the research we use began a decade ago, and I did start teaching a class in 2010, but folks didn’t really cohere as a collective until the summer of 2011.  It’s hard, as a collective member, to really have a vision for what a bunch of people will want to do for even five minutes down the line, much less six months, and our structure is pretty loose. So I’ll ask Francis to weigh in on this too. He was in that class, and is the visionary behind Comics Undressed, the documentary, so pretty heavily involved in decision-making about what we’ll be doing in the coming months. But I can tell you what we’ve committed to, besides the documentary we’re hoping to fund. In February we’ll have an exhibition in an art space in Pilsen that showcases political-themed work. And then for the next year we’ve developed a pretty amazing program for the Truthout comics I do monthly: I’ll be tracking global gendered labor issues through the production line of fast fashion and the sex trade, starting with retail workers in the US and going back through warehouses and factories—particularly in Cambodia, which I’ve written about for years. There the garment trade also raises a lot of questions about the sex industry and the really under-examined anti-human trafficking industry, which is often based on fear of sex and women’s economic power and not on facts at all. Those strips will start to appear in August, and while the first two years of the Truthout series brought in a different artist each month, these will work with an artist over a period of three months, so we can develop a better language and narrative—so it’s more evident how these things all interconnect.

Truthout’s been incredibly supportive of our work in investigative comics journalism and innovative research methodologies. We’re really excited to continue working with them.

GWP: I love Truthout, another Chicago-based gem. Next question. I’ve become intrigued with the way academic theory is increasingly, and literally, informing comics—Winnicott running through Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? seems to be just one example. Women’s eNews described Ladydrawers’ work as “Making an art form out of researching and publishing findings that others might write or talk about.” What kinds of theories and research findings interest you most these days, and what makes comics an apt vehicle for knowledge dissemination?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Comics have always, always, always been a hybrid form as open to influence from the literary or academic worlds as from the pop cultural worlds. Their very hybridity makes them a good way to explore difficult ideas. But this project started as a way to look at and research first gender, and then racial bias in the comic-book world. We were never going to use a standard research paper format to present that work—that just doesn’t make sense. Still, ranking comics on a scale established by literature does the form an injustice. Comics are a visual medium. Literature isn’t. We can’t overlook that.

GWP: Speaking of overlooked, you’ve noted, Anne, that when you were editing Best American Comics (the annual anthology published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), there was no shortage of submissions by women, but that traditionally barriers to inclusion and visibility carry a gendered tinge. What are the continued barriers, would you say?ladydrawers081611_3

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Well the first year and a half of the Truthout strips looked at the phenomenon of gender bias—and to a lesser degree, race and class bias—within comics really closely, and proved it, and provided some potential for changing it. Then more recently the last six months of Truthout strips lay out the broader cultural implications pretty clearly: there’s a historic lack of protection for women as a labor force, and a legal structure within cultural production that fails to acknowledge feminine forms or female-identified producers, which isn’t even an issue just for women, we see when we start to look at trans* identities—it’s an issue of gender policing being hidden within otherwise seemingly innocuous bodies of law like intellectual property rights. So what we end up with, which we shorthand to “misogyny” and “transphobia” when we talk about gender, and then “white supremacy” when we see the same system applied to folks with a diversity of racial identifications, isn’t actually a single, identifiable flaw within an overall system. It is endemic to the entirety of the system. The barriers are that capitalism is designed to work best for straight white men, and single-issue organizing to change it—most feminist concerns, for example—merely enfolds a new group of folks into this category of inclusion, although often for only a short time. Only an intersectional approach—that considers race and economics and physical ability and a range of gender identities—will offer possibilities for improvement, but the real, lasting barrier is getting folks who feel hurt by the system from their particular vantage point to see that.

GWP: You describe the collective as “a curiosity-driven, open-ended, exploratory body of friendly amateur researchers, concerned with who gets to say what in our culture and how they may or may not be supported in or compensated for saying it.” Any plans to collectively monetize the important work that you all do?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Interestingly, this is a project largely about, and situated within, capitalism: the “profit” to folks who work with us, while in school, are educational, and then once folks graduate, we try to make sure folks get paid or somehow compensated for their labor. But we’re also open to everyone, and part of the deal in working with us is knowing that we’ll do our best to get you something for your labor. Because comics are labor unlike any others in cultural production: it’s grueling, even compared to film, and no economy has really cohered around it for all participants. We try not to work with folks who are too ego-driven—folks who will take more than a share of the pie, whether the emotional one or the economic one—but it’s all pretty loose. Stuff happens. But the point is: establishing an economic base for underrepresented creators is important, to shift the dynamics of the industry. But to me, getting rich from doing that isn’t.

FRAN SYASS: Monetary success seems somewhat irrelevant to the Ladydrawers ethos, and I can’t find there is much profit for what we do. Though many of us are looking for our big breaks one day, this group isn’t really about that. As long as we get our research across and as long as we’re content with the work we do than, we’re just happy to break even by the end of the day.

GWP: You’re in Chicago. Erin Polgreen launched Symbolia from out here too. My partner and I are currently collaborating on a graphic memoir about the gendering of our b/g twins. Is there something about Chicago that’s conducive to innovative comics initiatives, or did I just move here at a fortuitous time?

ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE: Chicago’s been at the forefront of not just comics creation but of supporting a diversity of creators of comics for a really long time, starting with people like Jackie Ormes in the 1940s, and including folks like Dale Lavarov, Lilli Carré, Dan Clowes, and Laura Park in recent decades. Brain Frame, CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo), Trubble Club—these are some of the most innovative comics-related projects in the country right now, and what we do fits right in line with the ideas inherent in these projects: that comics can and should be parts of larger cultural movements to foster innovative dialogue. When I started the Best American Comics series, in fact, my editor sort of said, “You can move to New York now!” And I was like, I’ve already read all the Brooklyn cartoonists. This is where the real work’s at. The labor history in Chicago, in combination with the work ethic, make for really really interesting cultural production—from the social practice-based art scene to, I would argue (and will, in an upcoming essay) independent publishing in general but comics in particular. I’ve heard it echoed a lot with Ladydrawers stuff, too: we are very identified with Chicago, and I think it has as much to do with Jane Addams—who did remarkably similar research to what we do—as it does with the great comics being made here.

GWP: A number of your members are professional cartoonists, graphic artists, storytellers, zinesters, or official students of the form, but there’s also an aspiring journalist, a lingerie designer, a cashier, a fiber artist, a PhD student in rhetoric, an art professor, and a band. Many have cats. I have a cat. Can I join the collective?

FRAN SYASS: I really don’t know. I like to say you can, you already are, and you cannot, all at the same time. In my mind, it would be perfectly fine to increase the ranks of the Ladydrawers, and if you already do work similar to us or if we do work that you deeply care about why the heck not? However, there is just no official way to grant such a title to anyone, or everyone. Depending on the projects we undertake directly lead to the amount of people we need to participate in the group.

GWP: Tell us about Comics Undressed, the documentary film you’re funding through Kickstarter.  What do you hope to accomplish through the film?

LINDSEY SMITH: Comics Undressed is a documentary project that came about as an idea to formulate our findings and research into a unified piece that could easily be understood and conveyed to a larger audience outside of our ongoing comics work.  To start, Comics Undressed was sort of an idea, a project of Ladydrawers member and Director Fran Syass. When I met him he was still in the early stages of how exactly he wanted to construct the film and the best ways in which to explore the extensive research the Ladydrawers were collecting. Things really started coming together when we decided that the best way to do this was to go out into the world and hear directly from creators, readers and fans alike. What struck us most were the ways in which everyone had their own story to tell, their own love affair with comics, both good and bad. Interestingly the interviews would always end the same way, with hope for the future of comics and where it could go from here. I feel this is what we hope to accomplish overall with our film. To take a hard, long look at comics and see what is being done right and what is being done wrong and saying, “how can we make this better?”.

FRAN SYASS: I’ve always wanted to contribute more of my talents to the Ladydrawers, and most of my previous works delved less on my social, cultural, and political interests and more on my own aesthetic leanings. It seemed like the right time for the group and myself to tackle something that allowed more people to know what we were discovering about comics and popular culture. The Kickstarter we are currently running will run until the 18th of August and is our way to fund the project and hopefully break even financially in the end. The money we raise will primarily go to our equipment costs, transportation and event fees, and pay for our crew. Moreover, the financial support will help us aim for a completed film by the spring of 2014.

Editor’s note: The 18th of August is fast approaching. Help these amazing artists out by spreading this link, or considering a donation, if moved: For more info, watch the video below.

You can follow Ladydrawers via:

Twitter @TheLadydrawers


Check out the Truthout strip here.

Full-page links to comics reprinted above:

Why Have There Been No Great Women Comics Artists, Part 2

Why Have There Been No Great Women Comics Artists, Part 3


3-17-12-Trayvon-Martin_full_600Simone Ispa-Landa, Assistant Professor in the Department of Human Development & Social Policy at Northwestern University, is a new dear friend and fellow mama with a pen.  A sociologist who researches adolescence, race and ethnicity, gender, and (most recently) stigma and the effects of criminal record labeling, she teaches courses on qualitative methods. She is fiercely feminist in her intersectional approach, a passionate scholar grounded in the here and now. Below, she responds to the current conversation about what Black parents can and should tell their kids about how to stay safe. It’s not Black families that are failing in their efforts to protect their children, she reminds us. And she’s got the analysis to back it up.  Here’s Simone.  –Deborah Siegel

Three weeks after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, it’s a good time to reflect on a curious conversation that has been unfolding in its wake – one about what Black parents can and should tell their kids about how to stay safe and survive. Obviously, these are great – and unfortunately necessary – conversation for families, and especially Black families, to have.  But on a national level, I think we need a different conversation. Instead of talking about what parents can do and say to keep “at-risk” kids safe, let’s talk about how race matters for both “at-risk” and privileged kids.

Feminists working in the intersectionality framework have long noted that representations of Black women as bad mothers and Black men as absent fathers are important cogs in an ideological machine.  This is the machine that produces images of Black youth as “bad seeds” – on the way to becoming high-school dropouts, dangerous criminals, irresponsible parents, or just plain poor.

The recent events surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin only confirm the idea that Black youth – and especially Black males – face a world of hazard that most White people cannot even imagine.  After all, how many White parents have to worry about their teenage sons being shot and killed when they leave the house to go to the store? Or face a court system that pretends to be “race-blind” and repetitively silences the very issues of race that lie at the heart of its most troubling cases?

That said, the entirely sad and perhaps utterly predictable unfolding of the Trayvon Martin case, from the moment the 17-year old first attracted the attention of an armed neighborhood watch volunteer as “suspicious” to the defense attorneys’ devious attempts to reconfigure our image of Trayvon Martin from victim to “dangerous Black male thug” – should force the nation to rethink the spurious notion that Black families – and especially mothers – are responsible for the tragedies that disproportionately befall their children.

Black families are not failing in their efforts to protect their children.  Rather, it is the broader society – including the lingering effects of centuries of race-based exclusion, segregation, and cultural devaluation – that are making it so difficult for Black families to keep their kids safe.  In fact, it’s possible that the whole notion of “at-risk” Black youth would fade into an old-fashioned anachronism if our public institutions were half as committed to the welfare of the next generations of Black youth as their families were.

Indeed, research by people like Signthia Fordham suggests that many Black parents engage in hyper-vigilant surveillance and monitoring of their children’s whereabouts, all to guard their children against the kinds of danger that more privileged parents don’t even have to consider.  Further, while privileged suburban kids might bristle against their parents’ rules about cars, sex, homework, and drinking in bids to show off their autonomy, many Black kids in this country don’t have that luxury.

In my recent research, I examined how a sample of urban Black youth understood their parents’ rules and monitoring practices.  The participants in my sample legitimized even fairly restrictive parental restrictions as reasonable – as appropriately attuned to the hazards they faced.  The teens in my sample believed that following parents’ rules was critical for staying safe – and achieving future economic security.  In fact, the accounts of the urban Black teenagers whom I interviewed strongly diverged from accounts of more privileged American teens, who researchers like Amy Schalet, author of Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, describe as rebellious and prone to “sneaking around” behind their parents’ backs.  In my research, I theorized that the adolescents in my sample were different from more privileged (White) kids, in part because they could not afford to go off the straight and narrow. They didn’t have that freedom.

As many critical race scholars have argued, everyone in society is a racialized subject.  Part of being White means benefiting from the fact that whiteness in American society still functions as the universal, high-status, and unstated “norm,” and non-whiteness as different, low-status, and visible.   When white kids wander into their own or others’ neighborhoods, they are benefiting from the privileges that come from belonging to this “unmarked group.”  And, as Trayvon Martin’s shooting shows, belonging to a group that is marked as different, low-status, and visible can be incredibly dangerous, regardless of how well (or not) your parents prepare you for this reality.

So, instead of dissecting all the things parents of “at-risk” kids – and the kids themselves – should be doing to stay safe, let’s start a new conversation about all the ways that society can shift to make this a place where it’s easier to be a parent, and where being a kid means having the luxury (even if only occasionally) to rebel – without paying a tragic price.


On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot on a bus in Pakistan. Last month, she addressed the UN about the need for free, compulsory education for all children around the world.

Malala has inspired many people in the global campaign for girls’ education—a campaign that has partly provided inspiration for a new Pakistani female superhero, “Burka Avenger.” Created by entrepreneur and pop star Haroon Rashid, Burka Avenger is a cartoon series centered on the adventures of Jiya, a mild-mannered schoolteacher. Disguised as Burka Avenger, she fights for justice and education with her martial arts skills and her weapons of choice: books and pens. (Think Clark Kent in a sleek burqa.)

Much of the coverage in the West has touched on the feminist critique of Burka Avenger’s costume. The BBC quotes Marvi Sirmed, an Islamabad-based journalist and human rights activist, who observed the following problem with the show’s message: “you can only get power when you don a symbol of oppression.” Karachi-based writer Bina Shaw asked the following on her blog:

Is it right to take the burka and make it look ‘cool’ for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burka gives you power instead of taking it away from you?

In defense of his character’s burqa, creator Rashid said the following on NPR:

We chose the burqa because of course we wanted to hide her identity the way superheroes do. She doesn’t wear the burqa during the day—she doesn’t even wear a headscarf, or a hijab or anything like that; she goes about her business as a normal teacher would. And so she chooses to wear the burqa, she’s not oppressed… and on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of female superheroes in the West are objectified, and sort of sexualized in their costumes, like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, and that certainly would not work here.

What remains to be seen is what kids in Pakistan will make of the show—arguably what matters the most. As an English professor, I think about this all the time. As a parent, I think about this every time I talk with my kids about what they read and watch. It’s really quite remarkable, the way we all can create such different meanings out of the stories and images that surround us.

I’m reminded of a review written earlier this year by Lori Rotskoff, one of the editors of When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference It Made, about her experience watching “Charlie’s Angels” as a young girl in the 1970s. She observes that

In hindsight, I see that my nine-year-old mindset didn’t jibe with second-wave feminists’, who viewed the Angels as braless bimbos or, worse, as promiscuous pawns in a misogynist enterprise. While the Angels were hardly poster girls for radical feminism, many of us young female spectators regarded them as tough and talented, not titillating.

How will Pakistani children view Burka Avenger, and what messages will they take from her and her superhero costume? Only time will tell.